It’s only been ten months since Intel unleashed its Kaby Lake processors, but the blue team is already back with its next generation. It’s called Intel Coffee Lake, it’s designed to tackle AMD, and it’s going to give your PC a boost to rival the best caffeinated beverages.
Coffee Lake is the eighth generation of Intel’s Core processors, and it’s making big changes. There are now more cores than ever in Intel’s mainstream CPUs, which is no surprise considering that AMD has spent the past year impressing audiences with its Ryzen processors and their vast core counts.
We’ve taken a deep dive into these chips to find out exactly what makes Intel Coffee Lake tick – and whether or not they’ll be worth buying.
Intel Coffee Lake – The Technology
Several generations of Intel’s mainstream consumer processors have had a maximum of four cores, but this time around the Core i7 and Core i5 chips all have six cores – and the Core i3 chips have jumped from two to four cores.
Previously, the only way to get this many cores in an Intel CPU was to head to the firm’s Extreme Edition and Skylake-X ranges, which tend to be more expensive – and they also tended to use pricier motherboards, too.
As ever, the real excitement is found at the top of the stack. The Core i7 parts have six cores, and they’re Hyper-Threaded – so they can address a dozen concurrent threads. That brings Intel’s new chips into closer competition with AMD’s Ryzen 7 parts. Those chips tend to be priced similarly and have more cores, although Intel’s architecture does retain its better performance-per-core figures.
That performance advantage comes from the architecture that is used beneath Intel’s increased core count. The existing 14nm manufacturing process has been improved, and each core can now be overclocked individually for fine-tuned performance boosts.
There are other enhancements, too, even if the increased core count is Coffee Lake’s headline feature. Memory latency now adjusts itself automatically, the integrated graphics chip is a tad faster, and there’s more L3 cache because of those additional cores.
Intel is making big claims about the performance gains that Coffee Lake will deliver: the firm is claiming a 25% speed boost in some games and up to 45% more performance in certain multi-threaded tasks when compared to Kaby Lake chips.
That’s a huge claim that’s clearly been cherry-picked to provide the best possible outlook for Intel’s new chips, and we doubt it’ll stand up under scrutiny of a broader range of applications and games – especially when so many games and applications don’t deliver much of a boost when more cores are added.
That said, we do expect a significant performance boost when compared to Kaby Lake, both in single-threaded applications and in multi-threaded environments. High-end tools for designing, media creation, database work and CAD will likely show the best performance gains, and Coffee Lake will also deliver bigger gains when compared to older chips.
In other departments, Intel has had to make trade-offs to create Coffee Lake. In general, base clock speeds are a little lower than on Kaby Lake, but boost speeds are higher in order to compensate. That may mean a marginal lack of speed in some less-intensive tasks, but it should also give the chips more grunt when they’re really pushed.
The new chips consume more power, too: the top-tier Core i7 parts had a 95W TDP, which is four Watts more than the beefiest Core i7 parts from the Kaby Lake range.
Intel Coffee Lake – The Chips
The Coffee Lake roster is headlined by a pair of Core i7 parts. Top of the stack is the i7-8700K, which has the full might of the new architecture: six Hyper-Threaded cores, 12MB of L3 cache and an unlocked multiplier that’ll allow it to be overclocked.
It’s the most powerful Coffee Lake part, and it’s a good example of how Intel has tweaked with its clock speeds. The i7-8700K’s base speed of 3.7GHz is 300MHz lower than last year’s i7-7700K, but the new chip hits a Turbo peak of 4.7GHz on a single core – 200MHz higher than the i7-7700K’s best single-core Turbo pace.
That’s not all. The i7-8700K can also use Turbo Boost to hit a speed of 4.3GHz across all six of its cores. Last year’s chip could only add 200MHz to its pace across all of its four cores.
To get six Hyper-Threaded cores and this improved Turbo pace, though, you’ll have to shell out. The i7-8700K costs £360, which is about £30 more than the i7-7700K cost when it arrived in January.
The i7-8700 is a little cheaper, at £330, but with good reason. This secondary Core i7 part follows Intel’s familiar blueprint for its CPUs: the more affordable part doesn’t have the ‘K’ suffix, so it can’t be overclocked, and its stock speed of 3.2GHz is lower. Nevertheless, it’s still got those six Hyper-Threaded cores, and its peak Turbo speed of 4.6GHz is a sensational leap from that base speed.
Increased core counts aside, the rest of the new Coffee Lake chips follow Intel’s lead from last year. The two Core i5 chips are divided into unlocked and locked models, just like the Core i7 parts, but their six cores don’t have Hyper-Threading. Expect to pay between £180 and £270 for a Coffee Lake Core i5 processor.
The most affordable Coffee Lake parts are the Core i3 chips. One is unlocked for overclocking, while one isn’t, and neither have Hyper-Threading or Turbo Boost. Prices range between £110 and £170.
The omission of Turbo Boost on the Core i3 parts could be an issue when this year’s lesser clock speeds come into play – especially when even the most affordable AMD Ryzen chips have boosting and are unlocked for overclocking. Still, there’s plenty to like about the new Core i3 chips, which should deliver last year’s Core i5 performance at a lesser price.
Intel Coffee Lake – The Ecosystem
Coffee Lake’s increased core counts mean the chips demand more power, and those increased requirements mean a new chipset is needed.
The new chipset is called Z370, and it comes with a new version of Intel’s LGA 1151 socket that tweaks the arrangement of pins that connect the processor to the motherboard. The new chipset and socket mean that Coffee Lake chips won’t work in older motherboards.
The Z370 chipset helps regulate Coffee Lake’s increased power demands, but elsewhere it’s more similar to last year’s Z270 hardware – so you’re still getting loads of PCI lanes, SATA ports and USB sockets.
You’ll definitely need a new motherboard to upgrade to Coffee Lake, though, which is a little disappointing – it only adds expense for users, and it looks poor when stacked up against AMD’s insistence that the AM4 socket will be used for years to come.
Still, there’ll be plenty of options, with every form factor represented. And if the Z370 boards available at launch look too expensive, then the H370 and B360 chipsets will be released in early 2018, and they’ll help bring a vast range of more affordable motherboards to market.
Intel Coffee Lake – Do You Need It?
Intel’s new six-core chips are enticing and exciting, but right now the average gamer or home user just doesn’t need this sort of power – the latest triple-A titles, media tools, browsers and office applications are not optimised to make use of these multi-core chips.
That’s especially true if you’re running a system with a recent Kaby Lake or Skylake processor – the two extra cores won’t make a huge difference to most games or conventional applications, which means that a move to Coffee Lake will result in minimal performance improvements for a load of cash and hassle.
Of course, if you’ve got an older system that’s starting to chug and you do need an upgrade, then it does make sense to head to Coffee Lake – after all, it’s Intel’s newest generation of chips.
It also makes sense to look at Coffee Lake if you regularly run more demanding software. If you’re into media creation, database editing or CAD designing – or any other kind of demanding, multi-threaded software – then Coffee Lake’s extra cores will make a significant difference to your productivity when compared to older quad-core chips with similar prices.
That, on its own, could be worth the outlay – after all, this sort of core count has only previously been available on Intel’s more expensive platforms.
Coffee Lake could also prove attractive if you want to build a PC and not upgrade for a significant length of time. Intel and AMD are both moving to increasingly multi-threaded processors, which means games and applications will follow suit in a couple of years. Coffee Lake and other high-core chips may be expensive now, but they’ll have a longer shelf-life than existing quad-core chips, because software will come along to make use of the extra cores.
There are certainly several scenarios where Coffee Lake will make sense, and we expect Intel’s new chips to give AMD’s Ryzen parts some serious competition.
Right now, though, this is all conjecture – we won’t be able to draw definite conclusions until Coffee Lake systems start to arrive. Helpfully, that’ll only be a couple of weeks down the line.